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Africa's food and agricultural underdevelopment has perpetuated the poverty of the rural population and seriously jeopardized the long-term development of the continent. Is it reasonable to continue devoting the best lands of Africa to the growing of cash crops while millions of Africans are starving? Can Africa continue to spend more resources on the military than on the agricultural sector when it depends more and more on food-aid? Unless the right policies and a strong political will are adopted now, Africa will become the continent of famine and other disasters. The threat is enormous, but there is hope that it can be averted.
The sheer scale of sub-Saharan Africa's environmental crisis often leads to pessimism about the region's recovery prospects. That sense of pessimism has been reinforced by the failure of large-scale aid initiatives, designed to enhance environmental sustainability, to yield results. UNECA-FAO's view, based on experiences of working with communities across Africa, is that the crisis can be resolved, but only through cooperation with and support for local community initiatives. The issue at stake is the sustainable economic and social development of Africa for present and future generations.
Relationships between the different components of development are complex. The linkage between production of goods and conservation requires special emphasis. In many references to these activities it is inferred that the two are separate or even competitive. It should be appreciated that the two are very much interdependent. Production is impossible, over more than a very short period, without attention to conservation. Conservation cannot be successfully practiced without a productive return. This relationship should be remembered when developments affecting land and water are planned. Conservation measures must be included in the schedule and budgets of development activities.
Natural resources have been considered priceless, they were and are being sacrificed, and not conserved, as the example of transport shows. Since the oil crisis, the price of oil has not followed the price index, on the contrary. Had it done so, then a barrel of oil would not cost some 170 US dollars. Other resources and commodities have been dropping in price continuously since 1973 as well, making the resources delivering Third World ever poorer (the total debt now being 1650 billion US dollars), and sacrificing this world to an ever increasing exploitation.
The statistics tell us that welfare has not increased in Africa since 1970, despite the fact that the economy on the whole has prospered: production growth (GDP) has increased globally between 1970 and 1990. While consumption is steadily increasing on the one hand, we observe a loss of welfare on the other hand. Until 1970, this process was not really noticeable. Since then, however, it has risen in importance, it has become more structural, and less curable with the usual prescriptions.
The reason why our societies cannot interpret the data of decline properly is threefold. First, the main information flow on a nation's state of affairs is in the statistics of the national accounts or the (gross) national or domestic product (GNP, GDP). Second, natural resources are still widely considered free goods, to be consumed and depleted freely. Thirdly, the relationship between environmental losses and general welfare loss is not understood.
To begin with GDP: It is widely believed that the GDP is a reflection of the economic state of a nation, that is of its wealth, welfare, richness, health, prosperity and the like. The economics keep repeating this story- that a healthy nation has a high GDP, and that more of this GDP therefore means even more of this health. The real statistics of the GDP, however, tell a more limited story: they only refer to the amount of goods and services rendered in the economy, excluding important so-called non-productive services such as justice, education, and government, to name a few. Critics of the GDP have observed the anomalies of the accounts which add as income such negatives as waste production and handling, car repair, and even the production of weapons and warfare. If a factory produces noise and wastes to disturb people's health and waste to pollute a river, then the GDP goes up.
In order to correct this misleading GDP information, the UN System of National Accounts has to be changed, in that it stops accounting damage and depletion as income. The number of - hectic - debates on this subject is so high, and the outlook on a consensus so limited.
Part of the problem should consist of pricing the unpriced, which are the scarce environmental goods such as land, clean air, water, soil, open space and the like. Putting it differently, the National Accounting System must take into account the natural resources and environmental degradation caused by economic activities. Efforts to calculate these values properly have started some 30 years ago, and have long been in vain. However, there are signals that estimates and methods for this valuation are being accepted by and large.
The Northern model of growth is not working. The story the ISEW tells is, however, not only one of physical limits but more of the social limits. The possible interpretation is twofold.
First, there are environmental losses. Also, the factor unemployment is worsening the effect of the total Index, as technological developments keep outpacing labour, with no feasible market expansion to compensate for it. These irreversible effects have a dominant effect in the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) score.
Second, it may well be that before reaching the limits to growth, we are now observing the "limits to competition". If capital is free to flow around the globe at the speed of light, then there is hardly a possibility to control its use or allocation. All economic successes of the past have been a function of some protective rule, writes Paul Bairoch. There is not a single proof underlying the general belief that economic success can be achieved through a totally free market. The behaviour of the economies tested in the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) studies, points at a process of capital accumulation at the cost of the common good, but also that the costs of growing complexities are not understood (and even accounted for as income). Waste, damage, urban stress, crime, the lawyers' society (not Law and order which are a must), conflict, legalisations, bureaucracies, but even transport and energy, should all be interpreted as costs of complexity (and so as a negative economy). The price of it is not only the environment but also the welfare state itself, as societies account themselves richer than they are.
We seem to be all obviously trapped in a wrong economic, political and mental model. It is our belief that the developing countries in general and more specifically African countries are in need of an economic reformation, a deep analysis of the real roots of this predicament, a reformation which will loosen the ties with current economic thought, to replace it with one that is more ethical, doing justice to the poor, the earth and the future. We seem to have little time to fulfil that task.
On the basis of the above, the purpose of the present paper is to set up a framework to search for lasting and sustainable solution to the devastating problem of land and environmental degradation and desertification in Africa. Drawing on past actions, emerging countries' needs, current thinking on the role of the UN system in the field of assistance to member countries, the views of other partners involved in the development process and as well as on the past FAO and UNECA experiences in the field, a framework for sustainable, lasting and integrated solution is proposed.
This new strategy is adopting a "programme approach" which requires multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral linkages which will in turn ensure that a holistic view of the development problem is obtained, and the appropriate solutions identified and supported. This approach would not only ensure national ownership of both the problems and solutions to development process and to facilitate the ownership of the assistance by beneficiaries, but would also enhance the sustainability of interventions. Taking into account the limited resources available, the proposed framework is formulated around building local communities capacities to participate more effectively in the development process affecting their future.
There is no simple formula for reversing Africa's environmental crisis. But experiences offer some lessons. Firstly, the dynamics of environmental degradation are reversible, but only in collaboration with local communities. It is often forgotten by development 'experts' that the best people to speak on behalf of the poor are the poor themselves. Working with the poor requires the establishment of democratic and participative structures at every level, and not just in national institutions. Secondly, to stand any hope of adoption, conservation methods must cost little or nothing in cash, increase yields, and improve household food security by minimising risk. Thirdly, where tree planting and other conservation interventions are involved, they must not conflict with the labour needs of the agricultural cycle, and must produce timber, fuel-wood, or fodder, we hope that these principles have informed the negotiations on the Desertification Convention - one of the few potential benefits for sub-Saharan Africa to come out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
The challenges that Africa faces are many, but the most urgent one is that of protecting the future and action must be initiated firmly now. Governments must seriously and critically look at the policies they have constructed in the past and answer the question - who will benefit from the development programmes? Though there is no simple answer to the question of eliminating poverty, its progressive alleviation is a condition for sustainability.
Politicians, advisors, and ecologically conscious scientists that work for an environment-oriented change in economic policy need a measure of economic production/growth that is deflated by natural resources and environmental costs (degradation) induced by production/growth.
This task is politically (and scientifically, too) so important that we have to accept imperfect solutions. We have to teach the public that the currently prevailing production, income and growth concepts and calculations are only seemingly objective, seemingly valid and seemingly "modern". They profit from the fact that the produced goods and services are valued with market prices which seems to be self-evident. But the market prices of today are determined really without the external environmental costs of production and consumption and are therefore increasingly distant from the economic ecological "truth".
But perhaps the most fundamental challenge is to break the links between poverty and environmental degradation at source; namely, by enhancing the capacity of the poor to expand their own incomes. This means increasing and improving their access to land, making more capital available, providing infrastructure, and investing in labour-intensive technologies and training for new skills. This is part of the foundation of Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental, Rehabilitation for Tigray (SAERT) being promoted by FAO and UNECA.
For the case of Tigray, the test of the proposed approach which creates the forum for greater beneficiary participation in the development of the programmes to address the issues identified, was facilitated by the TGE policies on regionalisation, decentralization of authority and community participation.
Based on the design experiences attained in Ethiopia and elsewhere, the UNECAFAO is prepared to discuss the modus operandis for joint technical undertakings with other African development partners to find suitable long term and lasting solution to the problem of land and environment degradation and desertification in Africa. There is little doubt that, regional and sub-regional programmes elaborated within the framework presented in this document to face the challenges of Land and Environmental Degradation and Desertification in Africa, would benefit from financing by GEF and the recently adopted International Convention to Combat Desertification.